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The Demon in the Freezer by Richard Preston

The Demon in the Freezer (2002)

by Richard Preston

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Concerning my reading, it is style over substance that I go for. If there happens to be beauty in both, I rate highly. This book was definitely substance first, style last. But the substance was so substantial it still gets a tick from me.

The Demon in the Freezer is in this case (I wonder how many cases of there being demons in the freezer there are?) the smallpox virus. Officially eradicated in 1979, scientists kept specimens of the virus alive and frozen. With the increasing threat of terror invasions of the biological weapon type, there is now a school of thought that says all stocks of the virus should be destroyed so that it cannot fall into the wrong hands and be used against human populations. This virus is not a nice one. You can get if from someone easily and unknowingly before they even know they have it, and for ten days after they show the first flu-like symptoms. Its spread in today's interwoven societies would be exponential. You die in pain and slowly if you are the one in three that it is likely to kill. This is all before the notion that stocks of the smallpox virus are probably held in freezers in Iraq, North Korea and other states of questionable repute. That they could be being modified on a genetic level to resist vaccines is of great concern to scientists and governments around the world.

Concerns about other biological weapons are discussed here too, in particular anthrax which was distributed post 9/11 via the mail in the US and proved to be both deadly to those who were exposed to its spores, and very costly to clean up after.

On a more lighthearted note, my favourite part of the book follows:

"Pox hunters have so far discovered mousepox, monkeypox, skunkpox, pigpox, goatpox, camelpox, cowpox, pseudo-cowpox, buffalopox, gerbilpox, several deerpoxes, chamoispox, a couple of sealpoxes, turkeypox, canarypox, pigeonpox, starlingpox, peacockpox, sparrowpox, juncopox, mynahpox, quailpox, parrotpox and toadpox........There's dolphinpox, penguinpox, two kangaroopoxes, raccoonpox and quokkapox........snakepox and crocpox."

But fear not, only the animal in the title gets the virus just as smallpox only uses humans as its host. This was a fast and fantastic read. ( )
  Ireadthereforeiam | Jan 21, 2014 |
I purchased this book for myself in e-book format to see how they work; quite well much to my surprise, at least in the RocketBook format.

Preston, author of the virus-based thriller Hot Zone examines the factual biological threat of smallpox, otherwise known as variola. There are poxviruses that exist in almost all animal species, and one apparently crossed the species barrier several thousand years ago to become the most devastating killer of humans, superseding the plague by far. It's also one of the first diseases to have been officially completely eliminated from the world, except for two known storage points: one in the United States, the other in Russia.

Preston suggests that several rogue nations could be working on it as a biological weapon. The vaccinations most of us older folks received years ago are no longer immunizing, lasting only about five years.

The genome, i.e. letters of the genetic code, of variola is one of the longest of any virus and it has about two hundred genes. This complexity is used by the virus to defeat the immune system of the human host. The AIDS virus, in contrast, has only ten genes. "HIV is a bicycle, while smallpox is a Cadillac loaded with tailfins and every option in the book."

Preston is certain that smallpox will again be unleashed upon an unsuspecting world by terrorists. The virus floats through the air, traveling like lightning from victim to victim, a biological chain reaction. Studies done in a hospital in Meschede, Germany where a smallpox victim - he had arrived with the disease from outside the country - had been taken in 1970 showed that people could be infected even when they were outside the quarantine zone; it traveled much as smoke would throughout a building, even traveling into windows from the outside. The only way to stop it was massive vaccinations, which prevented the virus from moving outside the area.

The current vaccine produces serious adverse effects in a small number of those who receive it. It also might not be potent against a reengineered smallpox. Researchers have shown how easily the mousepox strain can be changed to become lethal to mice that normally are immune to it, - so easy, that an expert said a bright high school student could do it using publicly available information.

Conventional wisdom was that smallpox could not be transmitted into other non-human animals. It would be useful to induce the disease into other primates to be able to test newer forms of a vaccine. Fortunately, or unfortunately, that barrier was crossed May 31, 2001 when four monkeys were infected with one billion particles of smallpox virus. Two died. For the first time in history, a non-human animal had been infected with smallpox.

Smallpox had been declared completely eradicated in 1980, thanks to a heroic effort by the World Health Organization. Quite a controversy has surrounded the maintenance of the smallpox virus that has been kept potent in two storage facility freezers: one at the CDC in Atlanta, the other at a former germ-warfare facility in Siberia. The Russians had loaded tons of the virus into warheads during the eighties - thanks, guys - but these were to have been destroyed. Preston thinks that small amounts have been secreted out of the country into the hands of terrorist groups.

Preston interviewed Russian and American bioweapon experts who sit around and blithely discuss how easy it would be to create Armageddon, perhaps just by using a garden sprayer to deliver the disease particles. Air travel and constant movement around the planet would do the rest. Perhaps Bush should think about shutting down airports. Time to resurrect train travel, anyway.

Preston mixes anecdotes with science and detail to create a frightening view of a possible future, one much more lethal than nuclear war.

Just forget about sleeping if you read this book. ( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
Super unsettling story of the anthrax/smallpox scares after 9/11.

For teen Science of Zombies event: small pox rate of infection = 10. For every one person infected, they'll give it to ten others ( )
  kayceel | Sep 12, 2013 |
" A True Story " = In one of the greatest feats of modern science, the devastating smallpox virus, the worst disease in human history, was purged from the planet in 1979. In the interest of research, two stores were kept: one at the (CDC) Center for Disease Control in Atlanta and one at a Russian virology institute. But the demon in the freezer has been set loose. Iraq and North Korea are almost certainly hiding illegal stocks of the deadly virus. ( )
  Gatorhater | Jun 26, 2013 |
This, the story of smallpox in modern times (with a little anthrax for spice), is tautly written, like a thriller. Which it sort of is, only scarier because it's true. Preston is a good writer, he picks out memorable things about people, and he gets a free pass from me forever after referring to a doctor as "like the lion in Narnia" with backup examples. Well done, if scary as all get-out. 3.5 ( )
1 vote satyridae | Apr 5, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0345466632, Mass Market Paperback)

On December 9, 1979, smallpox, the most deadly human virus, ceased to exist in nature. After eradication, it was confined to freezers located in just two places on earth: the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta and the Maximum Containment Laboratory in Siberia. But these final samples were not destroyed at that time, and now secret stockpiles of smallpox surely exist. For example, since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the subsequent end of its biological weapons program, a sizeable amount of the former Soviet Union's smallpox stockpile remains unaccounted for, leading to fears that the virus has fallen into the hands of nations or terrorist groups willing to use it as a weapon. Scarier yet, some may even be trying to develop a strain that is resistant to vaccines. This disturbing reality is the focus of this fascinating, terrifying, and important book.

A longtime contributor to The New Yorker and author of the bestseller The Hot Zone, Preston is a skillful journalist whose work flows like a science fiction thriller. Based on extensive interviews with smallpox experts, health workers, and members of the U.S. intelligence community, The Demon in the Freezer details the history and behavior of the virus and how it was eventually isolated and eradicated by the heroic individuals of the World Health Organization. Preston also explains why a battle still rages between those who want to destroy all known stocks of the virus and those who want to keep some samples alive until a cure is found. This is a bitterly contentious point between scientists. Some worry that further testing will trigger a biological arms race, while others argue that more research is necessary since there are currently too few available doses of the vaccine to deal with a major outbreak. The anthrax scare of October, 2001, which Preston also writes about in this book, has served to reinforce the present dangers of biological warfare.

As Preston eloquently states in this powerful book, this scourge, once contained, was let loose again due to human weakness: "The virus's last strategy for survival was to bewitch its host and become a source of power. We could eradicate smallpox from nature, but we could not uproot the virus from the human heart." --Shawn Carkonen

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:18:56 -0400)

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A true-life thriller about the return of smallpox in an engineered form. Eradicated in 1979, smallpox now has crept onto the international black market, where it is prized as the mother of all biological weapons. This is the story of a crusade by three doctors to stay a step ahead of the bioterrorists and neutralize the most contagious pathogen known.… (more)

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